Now that the Titans' opponent has played a regular season game this year, it's time for the return of Enemy Intelligence, where I watch prior action of the next opponent and highlight some things I think are important. The Titans play their first road game of the season this week in San Diego against the Chargers in the Bolts' home opener. The Chargers are coming off a season-opening 22-14 victory in O.co Coliseum against the Oakland Raiders.
I spent a fair few hours this offseason watching this 2011 Chargers, because I wrote about them for Football Outsiders Almanac 2012, so this writeup will be based on what I saw last year and what I saw from the Raiders game.
- Norv Turner is still the Chargers' head coach and they still employ his offensive philosophy built around deep passes.
- Philip Rivers' body of work doesn't look pretty even when he's successful, and when he (or the rest of the team) is struggling, it looks real ugly, but he's pretty effective. He's good at operating in a muddied pocket, most of the time. He struggled a bit at times in 2011, trying to force some deep passes that ended up as interceptions.
- The big thing to watch is the Chargers' offensive line, especially left tackle Mike Harris. Jared Gaither is supposed to be the left tackle, but being Jared Gaither, he was injured early in training camp and hasn't been on the field. Harris got bulled by Richard Seymour early in last week's game, but otherwise did fine. Without Kamerion Wimbley, though, the Raiders do not have a pure speed rusher on their roster. Harris did better than I thought he'd do last week, but I still think Wimbley could create major problems for him. Right tackle Jeromey Clary sucks slightly less in pass pro than Derrick Morgan does as a pass rusher.
- Ryan Mathews was cleared for contact and practiced Thursday for the first time since a broken collarbone suffered in the first game of the preseason. When healthy, he's an outstanding running back with very good vision and speed who's also a very good receiver for one of Rivers' many checkdown passes. We'll see if he plays. Ronnie Brown will probably be the third down back either way and will get some carries if Mathews doesn't play. He's a veteran who knows what he's doing and is generally very very good in pass protection. He also runs like a back who's had a lot of carries and a lot of injuries, with very little suddenness or burst. Curtis Brinkley may also get carries, and he's just a guy.
- Antonio Gates started the season healthy and is already banged up. He's the Chargers' most valuable intermediate target, and Rivers didn't force very many deep passes when he was healthy and in the lineup this season. He's burned the Titans before.
- I don't love any of the wideouts. Malcom Floyd is a good deep receiver but not much else. I'm still trying to decide whether Robert Meachem is particularly good. Meachem did catch Rivers' real bomb last week, for 46 yards. They're both big players and Floyd in particular is good at making contested catches. Eddie Royal is the new slot receiver and may or may not catch some intermediate passes.
- The defense wasn't too good last year, and got burned repeatedly on third down. Monday was new defensive coordinator John Pagano's debut, and they did a good job against the Raiders, shutting down Darren McFadden on the ground and letting Carson Palmer throw a bunch of checkdowns to McFadden (18 targets!).
- The base defensive formation is a 3-4. The line is by and large uninspiring. Regular nose tackle Antonio Garay missed last week's game but is back at practice this week. The ends are Vaughn Martin and Corey Liuget. The pass rush comes from elsewhere.
- Veteran Takeo Spikes is one of the ILBs. He does a good job of being in the right place, but doesn't get there as quickly as he used to. I really like the other ILB, Donald Butler, a third-year guy who spent his first season on IR. He had a sack last week on a blitz.
- Travis LaBoy took the most snaps of any OLB last year. He's no longer on the team. They added Jarret Johnson from Baltimore, and I expect him to be one of the guys who sets the edge in the run game. Beyond Butler, Shaun Phillips played the most snaps of any linebacker and ended up with two sacks. He's now older and isn't as sudden, but could still create some problems. First-round pick Melvin Ingram and Antwan Barnes are both pass rushers. Barnes is more of a pure speed rusher, while Ingram is a guy who could come from anywhere. I can see the Chargers using double-gap blitzes and stunting guys to get pressure on Locker.
- Eric Weddle is one of the couple best safeties in the league. He can do it all-cover tight ends, play deep safety, come up and fill gaps in the run game, etc. New addition Atari Bigby is the strong safety. He'll fly around, whiff tackles, and sometimes end up out of position.
- The corners are ok at best. They want Shareece Wright to be the nickel corner, but he only played one snap last week and won't play again this week. Actual nickel corner Marcus Gilchrist and starter Quentin Jammer both gave up over 10 yards per pass last year. Jammer broke his hand and will be playing with a cast; I don't think that's really a big deal. Antoine Cason is the other guy, and while he's not great is probably relatively better than any non-Britt Titans receiver. Gilchrist blitzed from the slot a couple times last week.
I try not to say things about health in these previews, but the Chargers are pretty clearly a better team with both Mathews and Gates in the lineup. Brown and Brinkley, or Randy McMichael and Dante Rosario, are big drop-offs. If both play, I think the Chargers could really be able to move the ball on the Titans. If Mathews in particular doesn't play, the run game could struggle-the Titans don't have as good a defensive line as the Raiders (except that they do have a speed rusher), but the backs don't get (m)any extra yards on the ground. Unless Wimbley destroys Harris like he did Brandyn Dombrowski last year (possible), I think Rivers will get yards through the air-more if Gates is healthy, but effective either way. The Titans then would have to move the ball against the Chargers' defense, which is possible. On the whole, I think the Chargers probably win this game by double-digits if both Mathews and Gates play and by single-digits otherwise. If both don't play, though, I can see the Titans coming away with a win.